Jeff Hinson's size 12 feet were encased in low red boots and jangly spurs.
On his right hand, he wore a rope-stained white glove that rested tensely on his saddle horn. His left hand was bare.Hinson nodded his head slightly, signaling his father to open the chute gate that held back a steer. When the steer ran forward, Hinson and his horse leapt to meet him.
Looping a lariat gracefully around and around, Hinson timed the throw just right and caught the steer's horns. In one 30-minute period, Hinson didn't miss a throw. That's the kind of accuracy that earned the Staley teenager 1989's Junior All-Around Cowboy title for the Southern Rodeo Association.
Hinson, 14, talks about roping like it's second nature. To him, it probably is.
``It just comes naturally,' Hinson said casually. ``Some people can do it and some people can't. Once you get it, you know how to do it.'
Hinson rides on the saddle he won in December's under-16 cowboy competition at Flint Rock Farms in Reidsville. ``JRSRA Champion Cowboy' is stamped on both sides of the elaborate gear.
Hinson and his team roping partner, Kevin Poe, 15, of Siler City, prepared for the contest in Hinson's backyard rodeo ring. Jay Hinson, Jeff's father, built a ring, chutes, stands and announcer's booth in the hard-dirt pasture next to their home several years ago. Other rodeo friends come to practice there and neighbor kids hang around the ring, eating chips and staring wistfully at the horses.
Hinson said he had a good feeling the final day of the junior cowboy contest. Approaching the final competition, he ranked third in calf roping and was tied for second in chute dogging (steer wrestling). He and Poe were also first in team roping. Hinson tried to keep his horse, Duke, calm before entering the ring.
``I knew, coming into the finals, I had done real good in the team roping,' Hinson remembered. ``The second day, I knew I had it.' The rodeo took place over one weekend.
After winning all three events for the two-day contest, Hinson won All-Around Cowboy for the weekend and, finally, for the year. Hinson accumulated competition points throughout the year and earned enough over the weekend to snag the title.
``I just felt good because that's about the first thing I've won,' Hinson said of the title. He also got four belt buckles for his wins.
Other than working a bit harder for the All-Around Cowboy competition, Hinson has been practicing all his life. His father set him in front of a saddle horn before Hinson was a year old. When he was about 10, Hinson started roping, following his father's lead. His father thinks Hinson is a natural talent.
``I think it's come pretty easy to him, more than most,' Jay Hinson said. ``He's pretty athletic, he's taken a strong interest in it and he practices well.' Jay Hinson also credits a three-day rodeo school in Pennsylvania for teaching his son good roping habits at an early age.
Jay Hinson is glad his son enjoys rodeo's healthy competition. He compares the rivalry of school football teams with the helpful spirit around a rodeo ring.
``There are no fights like at the end of football games,' Jay Hinson said. ``At the end, they'll pat the winner on the back, even if it hurts. In the rodeo, they learn to be friendlier towards people more than in school sports.'
Besides, ``I'd rather know they're down here roping than out on the highway looking for drugs,' Jay Hinson said.
Ideally, the Hinsons joke they would like to see roping added to the roster of school sports. Already, Jeff Hinson rides against other high school students around the south. There are 50 North Carolina riders competing for scholarship money, enough to put on their own rodeo. Though East Randolph High School, where Jeff is a student, probably isn't planning on giving a letter in calf roping any time soon, the school is recognized if he places in student competition.
Most folks think of the wild West when they think of buckin' broncs, but the Hinsons say East Coast rodeo is becoming more popular. Big shows in cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh attract more and more spectators. And according to Jay Hinson, the number of Southern cowboys is growing, too.
``I hope it helps it to grow by teaching juniors,' Jay Hinson said.
On land, Jeff Hinson looks like a typical teenager - tall, lanky and a little awkward in his Levi's and rugby shirt. Put him on the back of a horse, however, and the awkwardness leaves him. He knows exactly what to do. And that's good because he hopes to go professional one day.
``I'll probably keep this up the rest of my life since I'm good at it at such a young age,' he said without conceit. ``I'll have to be real good to be on the pro circuit. That'd have to be your job instead of a 9-to-5 job.'